So there, I was . . . sitting across the table from the dinner guest who stared at me with hard, challenging eyes. The others at the table had turned toward me and the conversation had fallen silent. I slowly flipped my knife back and forth, feeling pressured to come up with an answer to “why do people sign up for the military?” I looked at the flickering candles and tried to slow my heartbeat before I said, “It’s a good question. I’m just wondering. Have you ever asked a soldier why they do what they do?”
“Ask a soldier?!?! Where the hell am I going to find a soldier?” he said, sitting back in his chair and folding his arms across his chest.
“Oh,I don’t know – maybe at the V.A. or a Memorial Day event or at the airport or whatever. I just thought they might be the right person to ask. Their answers might surprise you.”
He waved his hand at me as if to brush off my ridiculous suggestion, and I saw the understanding-gap that exists between the military and civilian worlds. I watched him push back from the table to walk away, and I had great compassion for what it might be like to be in the military and have so many people judging you, without ever talking to you or trying to understand.
I really meant it: why not ask a service member or a combat veteran? Why not sit down and say, “So tell me, why did you sign up? What do you like about being in the military? What does it mean to you?” I just thought if my dinner friend could ask – and truly hear the soldier’s response – there might be some lessening of the great divide between military and civilians.
The evening of my reading, when the peace activist stood in front of me demanding to know how I could possibly work for the military, I motioned to the couches right next to us, and said, “Let’s talk about it.”
“How could you work for an entity that creates war?” she said with the familiar accusatory emphasis.
“Well, look at it this way,” I said. “That same military put me – a civilian counselor – on bases to support their troops. That’s astounding, don’t you think? For the first time in the history of the military, folks could get free, confidential help with the burdens they carry.”
She sat back in the couch’s pillows, shaking her head to indicate my comment didn’t really satisfy her challenge.
“Well, it doesn’t mean the military doesn’t fight wars, but something must be changing if they are dialed into the fact that service members need more help, right? A couple of wars ago, soldiers couldn’t even admit they suffered from combat.”
In both of these instances, I didn’t expect to change anyone’s mind – but I guess I wanted to interrupt the assumptions and judgments. In the years I worked on bases, I talked with thousands of soldiers and spouses; I spoke with privates and commanders, infantrymen and engineers, Marines, sailors and airmen. I learned a lot about why soldiers (and marines, sailors and airmen) did what they did. In my next post, I’ll tell you about some of their answers – surprising, varied, sometimes touching answers. Stay tuned.
sara pearson says:
danny johnson says:
At a friend’s dinner party some weeks ago, the guests pushed their empty dessert plates toward the center of the candle-lit table and leaned back in their chairs, chatting and enjoying the ambience. The host asked me about my writing, so I talked about the soldier* stories for a while. I finished by saying how poignant and fulfilling my work with combat vets had been.
Just as I finished speaking, the man seated directly across from me at the table leaned forward on his elbows and said forcefully, “Here’s what I want to know. Tell me this: why the hell would anyone sign up to join the military? I mean, who in their right mind would do that?” His eyes bore into me and his voice was accusatory and harsh, as if a person joining the military was some fault of mine.
I sat still for a moment, wondering how I might respond. It was clear to me from the way he asked the question that he didn’t really want to hear an answer – he was more interested in voicing his judgments of those who served.
The table went silent and everyone looked at me.
I’d heard various iterations of this question many times during my years working with service members. The majority of people who learned about my work were interested, curious, even grateful. But there were always those who seemed to feel a kind of moral offense at anything related to the military.
One hot summer morning when I was in between military assignments, I met a group of friends for coffee. A woman I didn’t know arrived with a friend as we dragged a bunch of chairs over to a big table on the shaded patio. As I mentioned the assignment I’d just left and the base I had worked at, she screwed up her face in disgust and said she couldn’t fathom why someone would be in the military: “Look at what they have to do. Who would do that? Unbelievable . . . ”
Months later, I did a reading in front of an attentive audience. As the soldier stories landed in their hearts, I saw a few people with tears streaming down their faces. I finished the last paragraph and put the excerpt away in my folder, then turned to see a line forming with people who wanted to speak to me about what I had just read. A tall, heavy-set woman stood third in line, and when she got her chance to talk, she said, “I’ve been very active in peace politics all of my life. How can you possibly work in the military? How can you justify being a part of that?” She was almost angry in her demeanor – challenging, confrontational, demanding.
In my next post, I’ll talk about how I responded to these questions – and how they brought me into more compassion for the service men and women I worked with, their spouses and their families.
* I was using the terms “soldiers” generically, meaning the combat vets I had worked with from all branches of the military.
READ PART 2
Dona Kingsley says:
Elizabeth Heaney - Author
Clinical Psychologist, teacher, private counselor. She speaks and writes about her work with service members.